Columbia native Jason Odell Williams is making it big these days.
His promising and oh-so-relevant first novel, Personal Statement, published by In This Together Media, hits the book stores today. Called “mordantly hilarious” by a Vanity Fair editor, the young adult novel satirizes the absurdity of the college admissions process—particularly for those striving to get into an Ivy League school.
It’s told through the lens of three rising high school seniors and a young female political staffer. The plot thickens when a hurricane threatening the Connecticut coast presents the seemingly perfect ‘volunteer opportunity’ for padding the requisite personal statements that are part of the college admissions packet. Even though the book is just coming out today, it’s already been optioned for a movie.
But that’s not all. The budding novelist is also a television writer and producer who recently got word that The National Geographic television show Brain Games for which he’s a writer-producer has been nominated for an Emmy in the category Outstanding Informational Series. Lastly—well, probably not, actually—several of the plays he’s written have made a splash on stages across the U.S. and Canada.
Williams has a pretty impressive bio for someone not yet 40. He’s 38. Sure, the guy’s got natural talent and a killer work ethic. But the secret to his success is something ridiculously simple and counter-intuitive. It will leave parents weary of kids’ overexposure to media scratching their heads. His muse? Television watching as a kid. Lots of it. “Our family’s big thing was watching TV,” Williams acknowledged.
He even credits all that TV he absorbed with the work ethic he maintains to this day. “I’d do my homework really fast so I could watch 8:00pm TV,” he said. From The Mary Tyler Moore Show to Taxi to The Simpsons, Williams soaked up the humor inherent in the conversational banter at the forefront of popular sitcoms of the seventies and eighties. That may explain why, today, his favorite aspect of the creative process—whether he’s writing a play, a novel, or a TV script—centers around creating dialogue between characters.
Recently I spoke to Williams about where he finds creative inspiration, what his dream project would be, and more.
In addition to sitcom humor, where do you find creative inspiration?
My inspiration comes from all over. I could be reading a book, a play, or the newspaper. Sometimes it’s from my own experience.
Can you give me an example of a when you turned a personal experience into a creative endeavor?
Where I grew up in Columbia was really diverse. Ever other household was a difference race and ethnicity. My neighbor used to joke that a Mormon, a Catholic, and a Jewish guy were going down in his basement to play. It was the same at McDonogh, where I went to school from the fourth grade on. We called it the UN. You had to learn about different kind of people. I have friends from all sorts of different places. I grew up and wrote a play about race and racial issues, Baltimore in Black and White.
Your debut novel, Personal Statement, addresses the crazy competitive process of trying to get into an Ivy League college. Why this topic?
It came from my publishers who went to UVA [University of Virginia] with me. They came and saw the play I wrote in 2011, Baltimore in Black and White. They had just started their own publishing company. They asked to take me out for drinks and they said we have this idea for a book, and we think maybe you can tackle it. They gave me four pages of the idea, the synopsis and character sketches. I said: This reminds me of the movie Election. They realized then that I got it.
How do you ultimately decide if an idea’s worthy of becoming, say, a play that you want to write? It’s write what you know, but also write what you want to see, hear, read. I’m always like: Would I watch this? If not, why am I wasting my time? A lot of people are writing stuff they think will sell. I would rather write something that I would enjoy reading and, if ten other people like it, awesome.
What’s your dream project?
A TV show in the drama/comedy category. I just like making stuff up. I love making people talk. I feel like the good writers are moving away from movies and toward TV. With TV writers can take their time. There’s more control. Showtime and HBO is where it’s at right now.
What reading material is on your night stand?
I read several things at once. I’m re-reading The Great Gatsby. I’m also re-reading The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, a brilliant book about a young shortstop who gets drafted to a college team. And I’m reading The Tragedy of Arthur, about a guy whose father has been in and out of prison and who may or may not have discovered a lost Shakespeare play.
Sum up your life philosophy in one sentence.
All I can think of is “Have a good time, all of the time,” from This is Spinal Tap. Actually, I don’t have one. I’m still trying to figure it out. I’m only 38.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever got that you followed?
My dad says this all the time: Whenever there’s a choice, do both. Do everything. If you don’t have to choose, do both. I used to really resist and hate that. I didn’t want to listen to him for the longest time. But now, if I’m presented with two or more projects, in the back of my head I’m always like: I’m going to do both. There’s always some good that comes from it.
What advice would you give a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps?
If you know at all even vaguely what you want to do—editor, writer, actor—the sooner you know, find the place you’d love to work and intern there. I didn’t know in college. It took me a while. I didn’t start writing until 2008.
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